19 Oct 2014
“‘Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’” (Matt. 22:19) In the name …
We Americans are the descendents of revolutionaries who began the whole movement to overthrow the idea of the divine right of kings, that monarchs ruled by the will of God. So what are we to do when this morning’s Mass begins with the words: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.” (Rom. 13:1) Those are words penned by St. Paul. Are we in trouble with the Big Guy Upstairs because we’re not British colonies any more? Or maybe Paul was only referring to the authorities who rule presently and not to the kings and queens who came before them. That’s all well and good if you’re in the United States, but what if you’re, say, a citizen of North Korea right now? That Kim Jong Un guy they’ve been looking for is not the brightest bulb on the shelf and yet he’s the leader of a nation. Do these words of Paul mean that God has established him in rightful power? Or is it more likely that these words can be manipulated to mean whatever we want them to mean? And that’s what I’m afraid has been the case throughout history.
This is why we have to be very discerning when we speak of God and politics, even down to what is said in the biblical word, because both religions and governments will use each other for their own ends. I have a hard time accepting that this is what God intends, that God plays partisan politics. Instead, I think many of the problems that arise when we speak of God and politics are based on an undercurrent of theology that is desperate to protect the power and authority of God from the power and authority of governments and rulers. This we have to understand before we start using the Bible in politics.
Take this morning’s Lesson as a perfect example. Isaiah the prophet refers to the Emperor Cyrus, the monarch at the head of the Persian Empire, as God’s “anointed.” That word in Hebrew is “Messiah” and in Greek it’s translated as “Christ,” the anointed one. That’s a pretty powerful word. It’s understandable to see why Isaiah would be impressed by Cyrus. He freed the Jewish people from the Babylonians. 50 years earlier the Babylonians had marched on Jerusalem, tore down the city walls, burned the Temple to the ground and exiled the people. When Cyrus and the Persian Empire in turn defeated the Babylonians, the Jews called him God’s anointed saviour. When Cyrus sent the Jewish people back to their homeland and gave them permission to rebuild their Temple, he was praised as God’s chosen one. Cyrus, though, wasn’t really worried about religion. He definitely wasn’t a follower of Yahweh. He was only thinking politics when he did what he did. He sent the Jews home and all of the other defeated peoples too who had been exiled by the Babylonians, and in the process he made thousands of supporters for his empire, thousands of people who would not rise up in rebellion. Isaiah may have seen Cyrus as a saviour sent by God, but Cyrus only cared about Cyrus.
Isaiah made Cyrus into something he was not in order to protect the power of God. No Jewish Messiah arose to free God’s people from exile so therefore, said the prophet, this brutal warrior of the Persian Empire, he must be God’s anointed one. God couldn’t come across as powerless and Cyrus as powerful so therefore Cyrus worked for God. This strikes me as a convenient truth, and those are the ones that are common in politics when we hear about God. And that’s why I so enjoy the story of Jesus and “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Convenience comes to a screeching halt here. The group of Pharisees and Herodians are trying to trap Jesus. These two groups hated each other, but they despised Jesus even more. Here’s one of the earliest examples of politics making strange bedfellows. If Jesus says “Don’t pay,” then the soldiers come for Him; if He says “Pay” then Jesus loses credibility with the masses of people who are following Him. The key to this whole exchange, however, is when Jesus has to ask His interrogators for a coin. They can debate the fine theological points of paying taxes or not to Caesar, but Jesus is so completely dedicated to the kingdom of God that He doesn’t even have a coin from Caesar’s kingdom on His person. Jesus has to get the coin from His opponents. They’re the ones enabling Caesar to be Caesar. They’re the ones participating in the Roman economy. They’re the ones with the coin. Now this is an inconvenient truth. It translates into the message that we have to make moral decisions about the way we participate in the system or choose not to. Sometimes civil disobedience can be God’s path too.
Personal moral responsibility is unavoidable. I imagine everyone here is a bit worried about the spread of the Ebola virus. The government can do a lot. It has the power to decide who can and cannot enter the country. The CDC has plans in place to send a rapid response team to any place in the nation where a confirmed case of Ebola is diagnosed. The government is trying to stem the disease at its place of origin in Africa. These sorts of projects can’t be done by individuals working alone. But the battle against this disease can’t be won without the personal moral commitment of all of us, as well. There is an urgent need for honesty and concern for others. People who may have come into contact with someone who is infected need to be truthful about this possibility. When signs of the disease arise, we have the moral responsibility to take the initiative. That is what the nurse who got on the plane in Cleveland should have done as soon as she realized she had a fever. This is about our responsibility to others. Every person is going to have to care about every other person. And we also need to acknowledge the professionalism and dedication of the medical workers who will be asked to confront this disease as our first line of defense. Their selflessness is a perfect example of personal moral responsibility. The government can do a lot, but that can’t be an excuse for us not doing what we are morally obligated to do. God may or may not be working through governments, but let us pray that He definitely works through us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo